For a video of the full story, click on the gray "Watch" icon.
PHOENIX, Arizona: The western swing of Russell Athletic ESPN Arena Football Monday nights continues from the desert of Arizona this week as the Rattlers play host to the Los Angeles Avengers. Kick-off is slated for 10 p.m. ET. The Rattlers are playing for pride as they have been eliminated from the playoffs while Los Angeles is still in the mix in the American Conference. At 7-6, they are currently the 5th seed, but have a chance to move up which would mean they would host a first round playoff game.
This will be the 18th meeting between the clubs with Arizona holding a 10-7 advantage in the series. They met Week 6 in Los Angeles earlier this season with the Avengers winning that contest 64-45. LA has won four of the last five meetings, but Arizona has won both times they met in the playoffs (’04, ’05). The Rattlers are coming off of a win over Las Vegas last week and have won two of their last four. Los Angeles knocked off Chicago last week and has won four of their last six.
It was reported this past week that Rattlers QB Sherdrick Bonner was held out of practice and may not be able to play Monday night. That would be a shame as Bonner is one of the best to ever play the game. I remember coaching the Buffalo Destroyers against Arizona for the first time back in 2001 and being on the field before the game watching players in early warm-ups. I saw this really big tough looking dude throwing the ball around and remarked to one of my assistants, “Man, that lineman over there can really throw the ball.” The assistant responded, “Coach, that ain’t no lineman, that’s Sherdrick Bonner, their QB.” I knew right then we were in trouble. We lost 50-14.
Bonner’s size and strength have set him apart in his glorious career with Arizona. He is so hard to sack and has the strength to make accurate throws with defenders hanging all over him. He is a fierce competitor and knows the game as well as anybody. In fact, he has served as the team’s offensive coordinator this year, calling his own plays. Hopefully Bonner will be healthy enough to showcase his skills one more time Monday night in what may well be his last home game in a Rattlers uniform.
If not, AFL journeyman Chris Sanders will take the snaps for Arizona. Sanders has played sparingly this year and has only thrown 14 passes for three TDs and one interception backing up Bonner. He has started 12 games in the past three seasons including seven games for Kansas City last year.
Arizona’s top receiver is rookie Trandon Harvey (84-1226-27 TDs) but he has missed the past two games due to injury and isn’t expected to play. The projected starters are Jeremiah Pope, Atnaf Harris and Curtis Fagan with Darryl Jones as a back up. Pope (66-848-22 TDs) has been the most productive of this group. He caught four TD passes in the first half last week and ended up with 115 receiving yards for the game. The Rattler running game features the all-time AFL leading rusher, Bo Kelly. Kelly has 79 carries for 216 yards and 13 TDs this season and with a pair of TDs can take over second place on the AFL career rushing TD list.
The Avengers offense is centered around second-year starter Sonny Cumbie. Cumbie is the 12th rated QB in the AFL and has completed 61% of his passes for 68 TDs and only eight interceptions. He has thrived under Avengers head coach Ed Hodgkiss and is developing into a top notch Arena slinger. He also leads the AFL in 3rd down passer rating.
Los Angeles’ starting receivers are Rob Turner, and rookies LaShaun Ward and Terrance Stubbs. Nichiren Flowers and Robert Quiroga are the back-ups. Turner is the main threat with 81 catches for 947 yards and 17 TDs. Ward and Stubbs have done a nice job filling in for the injured starters Kevin Ingram and Lenzie Jackson. Ward had a breakout game in the Avengers upset of Georgia catching nine passes for 141 yards and four TDs three weeks ago.
Defensively the Avengers are led by sackmaster Silas Demary. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss and has batted down 5 passes. Fellow DE Jason Stewart has kicked in 5 sacks as well. The secondary has been rebuilt due to injury but is becoming a strength of the team. Veteran Damen Wheeler has 4 picks and 17 passes defensed. Eddie Canonico, the leading tackler (85.5) and former Rattler Terrance Joseph round out the group.
The Arizona defense has been semi-solid and was outstanding last week by shutting out Las Vegas in the second half and holding the Gladiators to just 20 points. The most consistent DB is rookie Keyuo Craver. He is second in the AFL in tackles with 94.5. Wendall Gaines (5.0 sacks) and Jeff Ruffin (3.5 sacks) are the main pass rushers. Rookie linebacker Grant Steen is the team’s leading interceptor with three.
Both teams have excellent veteran Arena kickers in Clay Rush for Arizona and Remy Hamilton for Los Angeles. Hamilton is perhaps the best kicker in AFL history and has hit 14 of 28 field goals this year including the game-winner to beat Chicago 50-47 at the buzzer last week.
A key to this one will be how Arizona responds to “playing for pride” as they have been eliminated from the playoff hunt. However, playing on national TV should serve as an added incentive. Los Angeles can’t win their division, but they still have a chance for a home playoff game and should be highly motivated. They have proven they can play with the big boys by beating both Georgia and Chicago in the past month.
The biggest factor in the Avengers’ success this season has been the turnover battle. They have turned the ball over 19 times this year. In their six losses they have spit the ball up 15 times, in their seven wins they have given it away only four times. You do the math. Arizona has taken the ball away 22 times this yea,r but has given it away 29 for a minus 7 turnover margin. To have a chance the Rattlers need to knock it loose or pick it off a few times.
The Rattlers have a core of veterans who have had outstanding careers including multiple Arena Bowl appearances and a couple of titles but their better days are behind them. Due to the lack of success this year you can expect the winds of change to blow hard in the off-season. Veteran players like Bonner, Randy Gatewood, Kelly and Jerry Sharp may not be around after this season. Another issue is that of head coach Gene Nudo and whether or not he will be given another chance. Nudo has been a fixture with the Rattlers as their general manager through the glory years and as the head coach the past three years. You won’t find a better man anywhere in the AFL and I hope he is given a chance to turn things around. If not, be sure that Nudo will find a home somewhere in the league.
In Los Angeles, coach Hodgkiss has his team back contending for the playoffs after missing the post season for the first time under his leadership last year. He has a lot of young talent on his squad and appears to have the right guy to build around in Cumbie. The next and biggest hurdle for Hodgkiss is to get his team deeper into the playoffs. If the Avengers can run the table by beating Arizona, Las Vegas and Utah, not exactly murderer’s row, they can forge into the playoffs with a head of steam at 10-6. Who knows, this just might be the year to stand with the Avengers!
(courtesy: Ray Bentley, ESPN.com)
For a video of the full story, click on the gray "Watch" icon.